For more than a year, news headlines have chronicled a staggering drop in student test scores, particularly in math. The pattern has been consistent across states. In Massachusetts, 37,000 more kids need substantial academic support in math this year, compared to pre-pandemic times.
To put that in perspective, if we put those children in a single school district, it would be the second-largest district in the state.
Inequity in academic achievement has spiked alongside Covid case counts. Students from low-income families, Black and Latino students and those who were already struggling academically prior to the pandemic have tended to suffer the most. As a result, a recent analysis suggests that students in majority-Black schools are now a full year behind in math compared to their peers in majority-white schools.
Tangled up in the daily knot of bad news, reports of these worrisome trends are easy to wave away. Won’t students bounce back once schools get back to normal? Do tests measure anything meaningful in the first place?
Declining math performance is not some obscure problem made up by policymakers who want to keep schools open at all costs. It’s a civil rights issue.
Unfortunately, as we showed in a recent paper, test results do matter in a very practical sense. Students who fall behind academically are very likely to remain behind — and elementary school test scores are a strong predictor of meeting future milestones like high school graduation. Those correlations hold even when we account for factors like race and socioeconomic background.
Further down the road, this means that ever more Black and Latino students will be shut out from the high-paying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers that will make up a growing share of the job market. Meanwhile, their white and more affluent peers, whose achievement suffered far less during the pandemic, will gain further advantage.
Why? Too few historically marginalized students will be ready to tackle the gateway topics for technology: advanced math and science classes like trigonometry, physics, statistics and precalculus. They’ll be less prepared to do well in college STEM courses and less hirable by tech companies upon graduation. Google is not going to hire coders who cannot code.
To illustrate this issue more clearly, consider what it means for Black students in Massachusetts, which is generally acknowledged as the highest-performing U.S. state in terms of educational achievement. In 2019, 954 Black students in grades 3-8 scored at the highest achievement level for math across the state. Such exceptional performance makes it more than 90 percent likely, based on past patterns, that those students will complete advanced math and/or science coursework in high school. They represent a crucial future recruitment pool for STEM roles.
Massachusetts skipped state testing in 2020. Then, when testing resumed in 2021, results plummeted. Only 325 Black students scored at the highest achievement level. The share of elite-scoring math students who identify as Black declined from 2.5 percent in 2019 to just 1.8 percent in 2021. Meanwhile, white and Asian students now make up an even larger proportion of top math students than before the pandemic.
The bottom line? As today’s elementary and middle school students progress into high school, challenging math and science courses in Massachusetts will probably have hundreds fewer Black students enrolled. In only two years, our schools have reversed course, wiping out hard-won gains in educational achievement and equity. And remember, this is happening in the highest-performing state in the nation.
If we don’t quickly figure out how to foster academic recovery, the doors to STEM careers will remain closed to too many talented and deserving students.
Declining math performance is not some obscure problem made up by policymakers who want to keep schools open at all costs. It’s a civil rights issue. Tech jobs provide opportunities for better earnings and propel wealth creation and higher rates of home ownership. Thus, for many students, it is no exaggeration to say that pandemic schooling setbacks are eroding the American Dream.
Not only that, but in our current hyperconnected world, technology companies shape our society. A lack of diversity among the people who build the algorithms that determine what we see online, how we shop and which databases our names show up in has profound implications for all of us.
Of course, this compounds a preexisting problem. As of 2020, just 6 percent of tech employees at Apple identified as Black — which represented zero progress since 2014. In 2019, Microsoft reported that 3.3 percent of its tech workforce was Black. Over six years, from 2014 to 2020, Google increased its percentage of Black tech workers from 1.5 percent to just 2.4 percent. Facebook’s 2020 diversity report showed the company’s Black share of tech workers at 1.7 percent. Meanwhile, concerns about racial and gender bias in artificial intelligence and other rapidly growing technological fields have become widespread.
Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook would do well to take notice — and to treat this crisis as their own. Imagine what could be accomplished, for example, if they and other companies incentivized every tech worker to spend an hour per week providing personalized math tutoring for promising students from historically marginalized backgrounds — for the next two years. Imagine if they encouraged employees to serve as mentors, supporting students through these difficult times and building relationships that could create future opportunities.
It’s this kind of all-hands-on-deck approach we’ll need to meet the unprecedented academic challenge that Covid presents our students and schools. Otherwise, the 2030 diversity reports from Silicon Valley might look worse than they do today. And the talents of thousands of students will be lost to these companies and our nation.
Tim Daly is CEO of EdNavigator; Dan Goldhaber is director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research and of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington.
This story about Black students and tech careers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.